After months of publicly proclaiming an expansion sweepstakes, the Big 12 announced yesterday that they would not be expanding. The maligned conference managed to turn college football’s version of The Bachelor into college football’s version of Al Capone’s vault.
After a very public process where well over a dozen schools were involved, hoping to gain entry into the sport’s elite, how did it end with a whimper and a thud? When there were many reasons why the conference should expand, and the league set out on a very public course to do so, why did they back out at the last second?
The reasoning is very simple.
Yes, the real power brokers in college football very clearly made their feelings known on the subject of Big 12 expansion and once that happened, the conference’s dreams of adding more teams and fortifying their long-term future was dead on arrival.
While it’s true that the Big 12 owes a lot of people an apology on this one, and this was all a giant waste of time, one wonders how differently it would have played out had executives from ESPN and Fox, the league’s television partners, had supported expansion. Alas, that was not the case as the networks took the extremely rare step of speaking out on the record regarding their rights partners.
Shanks essentially warned that any expansion could wind up being a fatal decision for the conference.
Shanks: “We don’t think expansion in the Big 12 is a good idea for the conference. We think it will be dilutive to the product in the short term. In the long term, it’s probably harmful to the future of the conference. Who knows where expansion is going to go. Reading the smoke signals, [expansion talk has] cooled off. I don’t know why. We’re still in discussions with them. We still have a long way to go in the deal. We’ll work through it the best way that we can.”
How often do you ever see network executives take a public position on anything? Let alone something so sensitive that could decide the future of one of their league or conference partners. It’d be one thing to do so behind the scenes, but going public with that viewpoint made Big 12 expansion almost untenable. It’s a difficult thought to stomach, but it shows once again how much power the media has over sports, especially college football. When you pay hundreds of millions of dollars in rights fees, perhaps it affords you a voice in the discussion.
But this isn’t the pros where the networks pay the bills and get out of the way. The uncomfortable reality of college football is that the networks have an active role in not just covering the teams or broadcasting games, but deciding “who’s in” and “who’s out” from a very literal sense of the words. The Big 12 was obviously serious about expansion, not even they would produce such a sweepstakes if they didn’t mean it at one point in time. But the momentum really stalled out once ESPN and Fox made their positions known.
It’s easy to see why the networks were against expansion – ESPN and Fox didn’t want to have to pay $20 million a year to new Big 12 programs, especially for teams that don’t have huge drawing power nationally. The more teams a conference has, the more lucrative payouts are dished out. Yes, it might be true that the Big 12 can negotiate a little bump in revenue from ESPN and Fox, but the networks will see it as a huge discount from the alternative. And they would be sure to take whatever steps necessary to ensure those savings in a time when business has been rough for the sports media giants and costs continue to soar.
It’s not as easy to see why the Big 12 caved in. There are many factors working against the conference’s long-term value, and let’s face it, survival. Expanding could have brought more markets, a stronger push for a conference network with more third-tier rights, and it could have built up a larger defense wall against the other power five conferences that are still circling.
Instead, this just all seems like another temporary fix for the Big 12. They still have the giant albatross of the Longhorn Network to deal with. They still have no real path forward for a revenue-generating conference network. They still have the “psychologically disadvantaged” position of being the smallest and the weakest of the power conferences. They still have the cold, hard truth that almost every school in the conference would rather be stuck somewhere else.
Expansion could have at least been one last gambit that could have stalled or detoured what seems like the inevitable. Instead, we got our answer to the question we posed a few months ago of “who is really in control here?” The answer isn’t Oklahoma or Texas or anyone else in the Big 12, it’s ESPN and Fox. Coming out publicly against Big 12 expansion was a major power play by Fox and ESPN, but when you have all the power already, what do you really have to lose?